Etched in Our Hearts

mattmontgomeryThe following is a guest post by Matthew Montgomery, a senior Music Education major at Geneva College. Matt is a talented guitarist and vocalist with a passion for sharing the gospel through song. Last fall he led devotions for The Genevans choir and reflected on his introduction to psalm-singing through the college’s chapel program, the choir, and New Song (a smaller vocal ensemble). Matt’s story is a wonderful testimony to the long-term spiritual impact of singing the psalms.

This is my fourth year singing with The Genevans, and I’m all too aware that it’s my last year here at Geneva College. Right now, I want to talk to the underclassmen, but you veterans are welcome to listen too. Freshmen, I remember being in your shoes and being pretty confused about some things when I came to Geneva. Now, I grew up Presbyterian, but I had no idea what the Reformed Presbyterian Church was all about until I got to chapel here and realized that there were no instruments or hymns.

At first, I remember feeling like my right to express myself through worship was taken away with psalm-singing in chapel. How was I supposed to worship without the songs and instruments that I was used to? Well, I slowly got used to the whole a capella thing. And as strange as it seemed to me at first, I did appreciate that we were singing straight from God’s Word. However, part of me still missed the songs that I liked to sing.

The longer I’ve been here at Geneva and the longer I’ve sung the psalms with this group and with New Song, the more I’ve fallen in love with psalm singing. God gave us the gift of music for many reasons, but one of the most evident reasons in my own experience is that God gave us music to help etch his Word into our hearts. Think about it: we struggle to remember a simple list of terms for an exam, but we can remember every single word to our favorite song. When we sing the psalms, we are not only praising God by echoing back His holy inspired Word to the Author of creation, we are tucking those words into our hearts for when we may need them most. There have been times that I’ve been so struck down and defeated that I have no words of my own to even pray. It is in moments like this that the melody and words to Psalm 6 have echoed through my mind:

I am weary from my sighing,
And my bed dissolves in tears,
For my eye grows weak with sorrow,
My comfort disappears.

Return, O Lord,
Rescue my soul because of your lovingkindness.

Or the words of Dr. Byron Curtis’ setting of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to thee;
Lord, my master, hear my voice.
And let thine ears attentive be
Unto my voice my crying plea.

I wait for the Lord, all my hope is in his mercy.

Michael’s Psalm 103 will forever be stuck in my head. Like Dr. Smith said yesterday, we will never be able to read that psalm without hearing the music in our head. That is a beautiful thing. This list of psalms that veteran Genevans know by heart could go on and on. Newbies, I encourage you to be mindful that you are not just learning and making memories during your time here at Geneva, you are equipping yourself with God’s Word which will guide and direct you for the rest of your life.

I urge you all, no matter what denomination you’re from or what style of worship you prefer, to be mindful of the incredible blessing it is to sing God’s praise and to be etching His word into your hearts and minds. I feel like a fool for ever thinking that my right to express myself through praise songs was being taken away, because the psalms are more expressive than any song that I could ever write. Every emotion or situation we find ourselves feeling or experiencing can point to a psalm. Don’t be as closed-minded as Freshman Matt.

I hope that when we all eventually leave this place, we would all have a better understanding of what it means to sing praises to God and to live a life of worship that stems only by being rooted in his Word.

–Matthew Montgomery

See Matt’s YouTube channel for some of his varied tastes and talents in music!

Sing Gently

Gentle ReformationA few months ago, Christian blogger Tim Challies listed Gentle Reformation, one of the only blogs I can even claim to regularly read, as one of his favorite blogs of 2016. It was a moment in the spotlight for the gracious authors of an ordinary and rather humble website, something they compared to winning the cyber version of an Oscar or an Emmy.

On one hand, I try not to put too much stock in online announcements like this. In the blogosphere, we can easily slip into our own imaginative reality in which a “like” and a “share” are equivalent to a laudatory review in the New York Times. But on the other hand, I think the authors of Gentle Reformation are on to something, and I’m glad a widely-read blogger publicly thanked them for it.

Gentle Reformation’s “About” page expresses three goals: to be persuasive rather than polemical, to be pastoral rather than pejorative, and to consider people in the pews rather than just professors and pastors. In other words, the blog exists because its authors recognize and seek to respond to several pitfalls that are especially prevalent in the Reformed and Presbyterian faith.

The first pitfall is the temptation of pride. Hard as it is to admit, we Reformed folk have the habit of turning the “only comfort in life and in death” of the Heidelberg Catechism into a surly self-confidence that shifts the attention from the finished work of Christ back to ourselves. How ironic that our Calvinistic theology that magnifies the grace of God can be turned to boost our own egos instead! Aware of this pitfall, the authors of Gentle Reformation have revealed a consistently humble and winsome tone in their writing.

Another temptation is to call out the bad without pointing instead to the good. In his recent book The Happy Christian, Free Reformed minister David Murray notes excessive negativity as a besetting problem for Christians as well as for our culture at large. Reading Gentle Reformation is refreshing because its dominant theme is one of encouragement rather than criticism.

Finally, bloggers—including Christian bloggers—often fall into patterns of technical jargon or lofty language that alienate readers. In the case of Reformed sites, the terms may include “neo-Kuyperianism” or Latin phrases from the Apostles’ Creed (and there is a place for such discussions), but the effects on readers are often the same. From what I have seen, Gentle Reformation consciously avoids this kind of jargon, instead creating articles that Christians in all walks of life can enjoy reading.

I feel the implications of these pitfalls pretty strongly with regard to psalm-singing as well. It is easy to lapse into discussions about short meter and formal-equivalence-versus-functional-equivalence that would leave many readers reeling. It is easy to lament the losses church music has suffered in the 21st century without suggesting gracious, practical, and positive ways to generate more enthusiasm for the psalms. And it is especially easy to look down on those who have a supposedly “less developed” understanding of worship.

Gentle Reformation serves as an inspiration for me as a fellow blogger to address these pitfalls more intentionally. More broadly, I think its example ought to challenge all of us in our everyday conversations, particularly with regard to psalm-singing. I’ve heard many arguments for the psalms that take the low road of dogmatism and condescension rather than the high road of gentle persuasion with brotherly love. That’s part of the reason URC Psalmody has never taken a position on exclusive psalmody or a cappella singing. Our point is to encourage readers to sing the psalms more, not to engender strife about hymns and instruments.

The example set by Geneva College also comes to my mind. Geneva holds to the practice of singing psalms exclusively and a cappella in chapel. And as the denominational college of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Geneva could easily define itself as the pro-psalm-and-anti-hymn-and-praise-chorus Christian college, with some powerful Scriptural and historical arguments to back it up. But that’s not at all the approach I’ve seen. Rather, I’ve seen the college gently disciple its students and professors in the practice of psalm-singing, week after week, year after year. Although many students won’t be won over by the time they graduate, I know many others who affirm that they developed a new and genuine love for the psalms thanks to Geneva. (You’ll hear from one of them later this week.)

I suppose the point of this post is merely to ponder out loud what a “Gentle Reformation” approach to psalm-singing might look like. I’m happy to hear your thoughts. I do know that these examples and many others remind us to emulate the chief example of our Savior, whose every word was full of grace and truth.

–MRK

A Psalm-Singing App-etizer

I’ve come to know the perils of collecting psalters in a house (or a dorm room) with limited shelf space. How many layers deep can the books go before they either warp the bookcase or pose a health hazard? How can you protect the oldest and most fragile psalters from being torn, dropped, or otherwise abused? And just how many blue Psalter Hymnals should you have on hand for impromptu hymn-sings?

While I’ll always prefer holding a physical book in my hand, I’m (reluctantly) supportive of efforts to digitize psalters and hymnals, especially for the sake of portability and space-saving. For years the Reformed Presbyterians have led the industry in this area with their Android and iOS apps for The Book of Psalms for Worship. I’ve seen these apps in action and can attest that they work well and come in handy when carrying a psalter around just isn’t practical.

I’d certainly given up hope for any digitized version of the 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal. But, as it turns out, a new resource has partially filled that gap! Recently, a reader from Singapore informed me that the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter is now available in an app format. The Android version has been out for a few years already, but an iOS version did not exist until just a few months ago. Both versions include the text of the 400+ psalm settings in the 1912 Psalter. But the iOS version also includes some fun and useful add-ons such as the Three Forms of Unity, a search function, and an audio feature. (It seems like similar functionality is included in the “Pro” version of the Android app, available here.)

1912 Psalter app

The biggest drawback to both versions of the United Presbyterian Psalter app is that neither one currently includes sheet music. Happily, the developer of the iOS app tells me that adding that capability is a goal for the future.

Even with just the text, these apps are a very useful tool for psalm-singing enthusiasts! The 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter was briefly used by the CRC and formed the basis for its later Psalter Hymnals. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal draws probably 70 to 80 percent of its psalm settings from the UP book. That means if you’re willing to get used to some changes in numbering, these apps can be helpful for URC folk who use the blue Psalter Hymnal as well.

With overhead projection supplanting traditional songbooks in many churches today, I think there are important advantages to maintaining a tradition of printed psalters in Reformed churches. That being said, it’s also encouraging to see digital resources popping up to help spread the love of psalm-singing in the 21st century!

–MRK

“The Marches of the Psalm-Country”

“In these busy days, it would be greatly to the spiritual profit of Christian men if they were more familiar with the Book of Psalms, in which they would find a complete armoury for life’s battles, and a perfect supply for life’s needs. Here we have both delight and usefulness, consolation and instruction. For every condition there is a Psalm, suitable and elevating. The Book supplies the babe in grace with penitent cries, and the perfected saint with triumphant songs. Its breadth of experience stretches from the jaws of hell to the gate of heaven. He who is acquainted with the marches of the Psalm-country knows that the land floweth with milk and honey, and he delights to travel therein.”

– from the preface to C.H. Spurgeon’s final volume of The Treasury of David

Psalm 77: Remember!

The final project for my class on the Psalms this past fall was a research paper on the theme of human and divine remembrance in Psalm 77. The paper was long and unwieldy, not particularly suitable for a blog post. But I did want to extract a few of the key themes from my study of Psalm 77, which constitute the thoughts below. Enjoy!

Claus Westermann writes that the Lord’s saving acts always involve a verbal exchange or dialogue between God and man, including “both the cry of man in distress and the response of praise which the saved make to God.” Nowhere is this dialogue more readily apparent in Scripture than in the Book of Psalms. Lament, supplication, confession, intercession, statements of trust, thanksgiving, and praise each weave their way through the songs of the Psalter, molding the hearts of believers to comprehend and follow the gospel pattern of anticipation and fulfillment. In particular, Psalm 77 is a poignant expression of the tension between the promises of God and man’s seemingly hopeless crises.

At least two primary themes within Psalm 77 should be considered: the effect of the psalmist’s questions and the effect of remembering the Lord’s mighty deeds. When the psalmist asks whether God has “forgotten to be gracious” (v. 9), is he speaking out of despair or out of hope? Interpreters differ on this question. Some take the psalmist’s reflection as despairing, concluding that the present looks even more bleak since God’s promises seem to have ended. Others, however, suggest that the psalmist is more incredulous: Surely God has not forgotten; therefore his mercy will surely return. Some even conclude that Psalm 77 leaves these questions to “hang unanswered” so that they can be carefully considered by each individual reader and singer.

Second, what about the “unseen footprints” referenced in v. 19 among the listing of God’s mighty deeds for his people? Almost certainly the event in view is the crossing of the Red Sea as recounted in Exodus 14, a miraculous occasion to which the people of Israel often turned in times of questioning (cf. Pss. 78, 106, 114). Most simply, the metaphor of unseen footprints may suggest the Israelites’ belief that the Lord went through the sea with them, so that his footprints, like theirs, were covered by the waters when they returned to their normal place. Nevertheless, the comment still seems unexpected here, especially since the evident purpose of the historical recollection has been to call attention to the Lord’s very obvious ways of delivering his people (writhing waters, pouring clouds, audible thunder, visible lightning, and palpable earthquakes). The rhetorical effect of the “unseen footprints” is anticlimactic at best, especially when followed by the pastoral image of the people being led like a flock (v. 20).

Kraus notes based on this phrase that “all the creative miracles of Israel’s God bear the mark of concealment,” again a paradoxical remark given the very revealed character of the natural phenomena just described. But he elaborates: “Being near ‘without footprints’—without the visible proofs of his coming—that is God’s way of dealing with his people.” The Lord’s holiness may be displayed through his mighty acts in view of all the nations, as suggested by vv. 14-18, yet it also takes shape in the mysterious “other-ness” which veils him from human view.

But is it possible that v. 19 delves even deeper in its intent? At least three other interpretations are possible. First, this statement provides a ray of hope that the Lord may indeed be working within his people’s present distress as well, albeit with unseen footprints. His provident protection endures through times of affliction, even when it cannot be perceived as such. Second, the phrase may suggest a sinful forgetfulness on the part of God’s people, one which refuses to take note of his footprints even in miraculous occurrences like the crossing of the Red Sea or the providing of manna. Finally, even for the faithful, the description of the Lord’s deeds as “unseen” acknowledges that the perception of his presence originates in a human vantage point. Although Psalm 77 stops far short of explicitly stating this as such, an undercurrent of hope weaves its way through this section of the psalm: Perhaps the problem lies in the singer’s ability to see rather than in God’s ability to act.

In this sense, the activity of remembering is a corrective exercise which tunes the spiritual eyes to glimpse the Lord’s redemptive work more clearly. Remembering and forgetting thus emerge as dichotomous focal points of Psalm 77 which surprise the reader with their rhetorical implications. While the psalm begins with a complaint that God has forgotten his steadfast love, by its end an unexpected reversal has become apparent: perhaps it is not the Lord but the psalmist that has forgotten. Years of affliction and a national culture of unbelief have dimmed the singer’s spiritual eyesight, leaving him uncertain of the form or presence of Yahweh in his dark situation. But by recounting the mighty deeds of the Lord—a story he has only heard rather than seen—the psalmist is able to restore his confidence that the steadfast love displayed in the exodus from Egypt will continue to be displayed, even if subtly and imperceptibly, into the future. Such a conclusion is possible because God’s faculty of remembering is inextricably bound up in his covenant with Abraham—because he is “not a human being, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). The psalmist takes comfort: God remembers!

Augustine suggests that the same lack of faith that prevented the Israelites from perceiving God’s footprints through the Red Sea also prevented the disciples from understanding Jesus’ miraculous walking on the water in Matthew 14. At the same time, Christ’s response to Peter’s doubt exhibited above all his immeasurable compassion even toward the forgetful: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). How comforting it is to imagine Christ speaking the same words to every sincere but doubting believer who, like the psalmist, questions the continuing validity of God’s promises. If the Psalms are any indication, the Lord in fact encourages his people to cry out to him in lament during times of great distress, pleading for him as the great Shepherd to right all of earth’s wrongs.

The apostle Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The hope provided by Psalm 77 is that the Lord both knows and lovingly responds to our forgetfulness. What a mercy it is that despite this spiritual amnesia, he gently and lovingly guides us by his Word to places where we can pause and reflect on his steadfast love. In the various situations of human life, forgetting is all too possible. The danger is twofold: forgetting past mercies in light of present affliction, or forgetting past afflictions in light of present mercies. Yet in the dark valleys of life’s path, in the times when we fail to see Christ’s footprints, Psalm 77 remains a gentle and wise guide, teaching us slowly but surely to remember the unfailing love of the Lord, so that when deliverance comes we may be sure to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).

–MRK

For bibliographic references, see the full paper.


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